Libya has always been the birthplace of novel phenomena. Aristotle famously wrote in his Historia Animalium, “Libya always brings forth something new.” At present over its skies, the world’s first extraterritorial drone war is taking place, fought primarily between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey. Libyans do not pilot the drones or typically choose the targets, nor do they pay for the drones’ acquisition and upkeep. The only thing tragically Libyan about this drone war is the nationality of most of the casualties and displaced persons.

Riding high on its booming economy, web of international alliances, and spare capacity after the Yemen withdrawal, it is unsurprising that the UAE seeks to secure strategic gains and crush ideological opponents in North Africa. But why is the conflict in Libya so important to cash-strapped and increasingly isolated Turkey?

Post-Gadhafi Libya as a penetrated system

Despite the current drone war’s novelty, foreign penetration of Libyan affairs is nothing new. Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster in 2011 differed fundamentally from the other “successful” Arab Spring movements — in that a coalition of outside actors lent aerial support, which was decisive in tipping the battle in favor of the myriad protestors who rose up against their dictator. During those hopeful times, a range of traditionally opposed Libyan groups worked together to oust Gadhafi — Berbers from the Nafusa mountains fought alongside neighboring Arab tribes, Zintanis worked with Misratans, and civil society activists fought on the same side with battle-hardened Islamist fighters. Ditto on the international front — Qatar and the UAE both provided fighter jets, special forces, and reconnaissance assistance, and although France spearheaded the international effort to garner diplomatic approval for a UN-backed no-fly zone, Italy simultaneously lent its air force bases.

In the wake of Gadhafi’s death in October 2011, the erstwhile allies staked out alliances with rival factions in the struggle for the post-Gadhafi future. In 2012-13, these tensions remained latent as the oil economy mostly recovered and attempts at a transition to constitutional governance proceeded by fits and starts. Yet since both the economy and the political transition stalled in 2014, Libya has been mired in two distinct rounds of civil war with various Libyan factions serving as proxies for regional and international players, each trying to secure its own interests.

Since Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s April 2019 assault on Tripoli, the extent and nature of foreign intervention has morphed — as the extraterritorialization of the drone war and recent reports of increased Russian mercenaries illustrate. Investigative reporting indicates that Hifter’s assault was likely greenlighted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are seeking to aid their Emirati allies’ attempts to rid North Africa of the Muslim Brotherhood and defeat Qatari-allied groups throughout the region. Despite the influx of international support for Hifter, the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) traditional international supporters — Italy, the U.S., the UK, Qatar, and Algeria — have been surprisingly reticent to give meaningful military assistance to the GNA in its time of need. Turkey has chosen to pick up the slack. But why has Turkey been the sole international power lending the defenders of Tripoli — the coalition of militias nominally allied to the GNA — the aerial support and munitions they need to survive? The true rationale for sustained Turkish support may have finally come into focus.

Why has Turkey doubled down on Libya?

Since 2011, Turkey’s interest in Libya has typically been analyzed as ideological and geopolitical — deriving from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism, his desire to prop up Islamist movements akin to his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), and to extend his regional alliance with Qatar into North Africa. Yet, it has a strong commercial dimension as well. Turkey’s economy has been in freefall over the past two years and Libya represents a key opportunity for licit and illicit gains. Much of western Libya’s corrupt money is laundered in Turkey, while Turkish firms, especially in construction, are sitting on upwards of $19 billion in outstanding contracts. They would love to see their president secure a compliant Libyan government that they can sue or cajole to collect debts.

An additional piece of the economic puzzle emerged on Nov. 27 as the GNA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Turkey seeking to create a shared maritime boundary in the Mediterranean Sea between southwestern Turkey and northeastern Libya. In an overt quid pro quo, this maritime agreement — which if it were legal or enforceable, would enormously benefit Turkish offshore gas interests — was signed along with a separate MoU to expand security and military cooperation (i.e. the lifeline that the GNA needs to continue its flagging defense of Tripoli). Thus, it seems clear that Turkey was only able to persuade the GNA to agree to the maritime deal in exchange for increased security support for the GNA-aligned forces fighting the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in Tripoli. This assistance is vital given that the LNA has been making incremental gains along the Tripoli frontlines in the past few weeks and its aerial capabilities, supported by the UAE, have recently achieved supremacy over those of the GNA-aligned forces, supported by Turkey. Without vastly increased Turkish involvement, the UAE is on the verge of cementing its victory in the world’s first extraterritorial drone war.

Until now, the GNA’s strength has come not from its paltry military and organizational capacities, but from presenting itself as the universally internationally-recognized government, legitimately defending its capital from an assault by an unprovoked aggressor, whose troops have committed documented war crimes. And now in a classically Libyan version of an own goal, despite spending millions on PR firms, the GNA may have given Hifter just the narrative he needs to level the playing field in the media war. The Turkey-GNA maritime agreement’s blatant disregard for international law could muddy the waters on the “good guy/bad guy” dynamic and possibly even deprive the GNA of international recognition from certain eastern Mediterranean countries.

The agreement has already sparked a backlash from Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt as it attempts to grant Turkey rights to natural gas in territorial waters claimed by those nations. Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, said any such agreement would be “illegal and absurd” because it ignores the presence of Crete between the coasts of Turkey and Libya and that Greece would respond to any attempts by Turkey to encroach on its rights. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that the MoU is illegal and therefore “does not bind and does not affect the interests and rights of any third parties.” On 1 Dec., Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said he would call on NATO members at the London summit to support Greece against Turkey, warning, “An alliance like NATO cannot stand by indifferently when one of its members blatantly violates international law and turns against another one of its members.” Although usually seen as backers of the GNA and of Turkey’s crucial position within NATO, the State Department and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office have spoken out against the agreement, as well.

Could Turkey be seeking leverage within NATO?

Turkey’s position within NATO is under maximal strain. In many key theatres of conflict, the Turks are actively collaborating with the Russians against the interests of other NATO members — although in Libya the Turks and Russians are actually on opposite sides. Turkey is facing possible sanctions for its purchase of a Russian missile defense system and recent violations of international law resulting from its offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

To alleviate this pressure, the Turks have tried to leverage their ability to veto NATO’s Baltic defense plan. Prior to the NATO London Summit last week, they announced they would veto the plan, then in London said they would acquiesce, and now they are once again reasserting their intention to veto, unless the Kurdish YPG forces are designated as terrorists. Could the maritime MoU be another attempt by Erdogan to develop leverage in a peripheral theatre (the Baltics or Libya) that he could trade away to cement Western acquiescence in a core one (Syria)?

But would an increasingly isolated Turkey risk such virulent condemnation in the eastern Mediterranean to have a bargaining chip with NATO? Gönül Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at MEI, thinks not. For her, the answer lies not in Tripoli, London, or Brussels, but in Ankara. “The eastern Mediterranean in general, and staking claims of territorial waters in specific, is as important a strategic issue for Turkey as northern Syria and the Kurds. It is perceived as an existential issue that Turkish opposition parties actually agree with President Erdogan about. Despite whatever is said internationally, the GNA-Turkey maritime deal is broadly popular in Turkish domestic opinion.”

Turkey’s energy conundrum

Although it is surrounded on all sides by major energy players, Turkey has traditionally been the most energy-poor country in the G20. Only in the last decade has Ankara tried to fashion itself as a natural gas hub for Europe. As such it is competing with the Republic of Cyprus and Greece for sovereignty over waters in the eastern Mediterranean to secure access to, and rights over, oil and natural gas reserves. According to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal states have a right to 200 nautical miles of maritime territory from a baseline drawn off their coast in which they can declare an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) where they have the sole right to explore and exploit natural resources. Because of the concave shape of the eastern Mediterranean, there are substantial overlaps among the areas that each country can claim — hence none have successfully established EEZs yet.

Despite these potential competing legal claims under international law, the GNA-Turkey deal is not in keeping with the EEZ or continental shelf principle contained within UNCLOS. Turkey, however, disputes the standard interpretation of these laws, claiming that islands cannot have a continental shelf under UNCLOS. The Turkish Parliament has now published, approved, and effectuated the MoU. The exact coordinates of Turkish and Libyan territorial waters, according to the two nations, are now a matter of public record. They have agreed upon sharing access to an uninterrupted swathe of territory running from southwestern Turkey across to the eastern Libyan coastline between Derna and Tobruk, skirting just southeast of the Greek islands of Rhodes and Crete. This has prompted Greece to expel the GNA-aligned Libyan ambassador and file a complaint at the UN — unprecedented moves which put Athens squarely in the pro-Hifter camp for the foreseeable future.

While Greece had not been actively involved in the Libyan conflict much before this, Greek companies have recently “taken sides” by signing contracts with the Hifter-aligned eastern Libyan authorities and granting ExxonMobil exploration rights near Crete — in waters Libya has traditionally considered as part of its maritime zone. This has shifted the playing field against Turkish interests. Additionally, the EU adopted a framework for economic sanctions against Turkey last month in response to its drilling off the coast of Cyprus, in violation of the Republic of Cyprus’s implicit continental shelf and potential EEZ. The sheer audacity of the GNA-Turkey maritime MoU is now forcing the EU to consider another slap on Turkey’s wrist and moving previously neutral or marginally pro-GNA countries into the anti-GNA camp.

A desperate maritime Hail Mary

Seen in this light, the context of the GNA-Turkey maritime accord no longer appears to be the momentary horse-trading surrounding the NATO summit. The broader context is actually an increasingly rogue Turkey, doubling down on brazen attempts to secure its interests in northern Syria and the eastern Mediterranean, while flouting international norms. In the unlikely event that the maritime deal is somehow upheld and exploration and production is initiated, energy-poor Turkey would experience far greater benefit from this than energy-rich Libya. Yet, the GNA is obviously in dire need of short-term military support and few countries are willing to deliver it. In this, and other instances, the GNA has shown itself to be extremely shortsighted in its willingness to trade away both future economic gain and long-term international legitimacy to meet its immediate military needs.

Profound international ramifications

Greece and Cyprus, previously largely bystanders in the Libyan civil war, are likely to increasingly engage in Libya from a pro-LNA position, which could further complicate the EU’s already confused stance (with France and Italy on opposite sides of the conflict). The Trump administration may return to its bipolar approach to Libya, by yet again reversing course and agreeing to pressure Turkey over the agreement as part of a broader sanctions regime contained in legislation currently making its way through Congress.

The ramifications of Libya having become a penetrated arena for interest grabs and the accumulation of bargaining chips are very dire indeed. As each foreign actor attempts to “cultivate a position” to either secure strategic goals or later bargain it away for an even greater objective, this drives increasing proxy involvement, undermines international mediation efforts, and makes it nearly impossible for the main supporters of the Libyan factions “to back down.”

To avoid this abyss of further polarization and brazen interest grabs, now is the time for the relatively disinterested major powers (the U.S., the UK, and Germany) to issue decisive public statements that they will oppose further escalation of the drone war, counteract the introduction of Russian mercenaries, condemn quid pro quos meant to secure access to maritime resources, punish aggressors and human rights violators, and not allow desperate pledges by desperate governments to become international law.


Jason Pack is Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute, Author of It's the Economy Stupid: How Libya's Civil War Is Rooted in Its Economic Structures, Former Executive Director of the U.S. Libya-Business Association, and Founder of Libya-Analysis LLC. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.